I have learned from talking with members of the general public that their expectation of what happens in our court system is a little different from what actually occurs in the courtroom. For example, most people assume that jury trials are about a jury making an informed decision after hearing "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." However, that is more of a Hollywood notion and it might surprise you to know that in every trial, the jury does not get to hear the whole story. While there is no question that our jury system is the best in the world, this article will discuss the information that is regularly kept from juries in car crash trials.
Rule 411 of the Colorado Rules of Evidence prevents the jury from being told that the at-fault driver has insurance and that anything the jury awards will be paid by the insurance company. At trial, the parties are required to pretend for the jury that the at-fault driver will have to pay any verdict awarded to the plaintiff. The whole trial becomes an exercise in us trying to get a jury to award money that will be paid entirely by an insurance company without us ever informing the jury of the "I-word."
Oftentimes, insurance defense lawyers take advantage of these rules so that it provides an unfair advantage for their side. For example, after I give my opening statement in a trial, the mild-mannered defense lawyer will tell the jury something like, "My client, Mr. Jones, did rear-end Mr. Hemmat's client. But that is not the whole story. My client has asked me to come here today and stand up for him and tell you his side of the story..." Accordingly, defense attorneys often exploit this rule to mislead the jury into believing that they were hired by the at-fault driver and that the driver will be personally liable for the verdict.
This is court-supported lying to the jury because the mild-mannered defense lawyer is being paid by an insurance company to represent the at-fault driver. In fact, the insurance defense lawyer likely works for a law firm that only represents insurance companies that deny claims brought by injured folks.
Not only did Mr. Jones not hire him, it is likely that Mr. Jones had never even met him until the morning of trial.
The law requires us to sue the at-fault driver instead of the insurance company and to pretend he is going to pay this verdict. This rule was created because the courts and legislature believe that juries might award exorbitantly higher verdicts if they knew that car crash trials were really all about insurance company money. To address this concern, the judge and all the lawyers in court are all required to maintain this secret.
2) PAST BAD ACTS:
Rule 404 of the Colorado Rules of Evidence prevents a jury from being told about the at-fault driver's past bad acts or driving record. Generally, the jury will not find out that the guy on trial for causing the crash, who might have been drunk when the accident occurred, actually did this sort of thing before—maybe many times before. Rule 404 prevents the introduction of such bad acts because the introduction of that evidence might cause a jury to unfairly conclude that since the defendant has caused accidents or driven drunk in the past, he must naturally have done it on this occasion as well.
So, to avoid what is thought to be an unfair assumption, the judge and lawyers in court are all required to keep that secret from the jury as well.
3) CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CRASH:
On many occasions, when an at-fault driver causes an accident because he was intoxicated, or if a driver fled the scene of an accident, the defense lawyer representing that driver will simply admit liability before trial. This may seem like a noble gesture, but the motivation behind this decision couldn't be any less noble or honorable. Once the at-fault driver admits liability for a car accident, the court will oftentimes prevent any information about the details of the crash and what the defendant did wrong to cause the crash from being shared with the jury, even if the conduct was really bad.
Rule 403 of the Colorado Rules of Evidence prevents the presentation of trial testimony that is either duplicative or highly prejudicial when weighed against its probative value. Consequently, courts are keen on determining that once fault is admitted by the defendant, it is a waste of court time to re-hash what the defendant specifically did wrong since after all, he's admitting fault.
Accordingly, a court may determine that any trial testimony about the details of the accident would be duplicative or highly prejudicial to the defendant. In these cases, the jury is routinely told that there was a crash, the parties agree that the defendant caused it, and that the trial will only focus on whether any injuries were caused by the accident, and if so, how much should the plaintiff be compensated for those injuries.
The courts nearly always let the defendant sanitize the proceedings by admitting liability. As a result, the jury might assume that the car crash must have been an innocent fender-bender caused by a "straight-shooting" guy willing to own up to his mistake. The jury then focuses their entire energy on determining whether my client is worthy of monetary recovery. Unfortunately, sometimes the answer they reach is, no he isn't.
When we suspect that a defendant is going to admit liability to prevent us from revealing his outrageous conduct to the jury, we often seek punitive damages against the defendant. For example, if a defendant caused an accident because he was intoxicated, we often seek punitive damages. Pursuing punitive damages against the defendant allows us to seek increased damages and permits us to introduce evidence of defendant's wanton and reckless driving behavior to the jury, even if the defendant admits to causing the crash.
But, when the court rules that we are not to speak about how the crash happened, it's our duty to keep that secret from the jury, as well.
At trial, it isn't always a case of "what you see is what you get" for the jury. As discussed in this article, the jury does not get the whole story and key facts are concealed from the jury because of the Rules of Evidence. If you have ever observed a trial, this is precisely why there are often numerous side-bar conversations between the lawyers and the judge that the jury does not get to hear.
Because of the secrets that the attorneys are forced to keep, trials can sometimes take on a life of their own and can become more about how little of the truth the jury gets to hear. When we go to trial to represent our injured clients, we want the jury to hear the whole story. In contrast, defense counsel usually wants to keep the jury in the dark by keeping key information about the case a secret.
Nevertheless, at our firm, we are not afraid to go to trial to fight for our clients, because we believe that our jury system is the best in the world and that Colorado juries usually get it right. Although the jury is not going to get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, we will play by the rules and make sure that our client's story is effectively and persuasively told to the jury. If you or a loved one has been injured and you have questions about the evidence that can be presented at trial, please call and speak with one of our attorneys today.